A good friend of mine recently suffered mistress meltdown. All his girlfriends met up by (he claimed) accident and one thing led to another. He is now single. Even his wife(fair enough) kicked him out.
I am gripped by other people’s problems, presumably so that my own seem more mundane, and I dragged information past his defensive smirk.
‘But did you tell her you loved her?’ I asked, almost genuinely feeling that if he hadn’t made this claim then somehow his behaviour might be a bit more excusable.
He answered by putting his face in his hands.
When I am tired and cross (This morning. Yesterday morning. The morning of the day before yesterday. You get the picture) and am being horrible to my children (we do get up at 6.30 and leave the house at 7.15 to drive down to the station where they then have an hour’s journey to their school in Pisa) my son always says; ‘I love you, Mummy.’
Usually I hiss back; ‘I love you too, but wash your plate before I go completely nuts, okay?’ What he means, obviously, is – please be nice and look after me. What he means is – you say you love me all the time but you’re not behaving like it.
This, obviously, is the problem with love. It is only the people who claim to love you that treat you like shit. If someone is beating you up on a regular basis it is probably someone who says he loves you.
If someone is leaving you to do all the cooking, shopping, cleaning, drudging and baby-sitting it is probably someone who says he loves you. There seem to be two things happening here…
The first is that an admission of love is a kind of commitment that people (fools!) take seriously. There is a general understanding (that is, misunderstanding) that if someone says ‘I love you’ then they mean it not only at the moment they say it, but that they are sure they will continue to feel it for the foreseeable future.
It is a mysterious pledge to behave lovingly for the foreseeable future, at least until you have changed your mind.
Again there is a tacit agreement that, should you change your mind, you will apprise the other party of this development. If you are in a relationship but have not yet said ‘I love you’ then very little is expected of you.
Bad behaviour on your part (say, also having two other lovers and a wife) is disappointing, disagreeable, painful but not unacceptable. ‘Well, he never said he loved me…’
The second thing that is always misunderstood, particularly by women who are forever forgiving every aspect of male behaviour and subjugating their very personalities to any old abuser they can lay their hands on, is that a declaration of love extremely often means – please love me.
It is a way of getting a license to abuse another person whilst simultaneously preventing them from venting the appropriate rage or, better still, walking away. ‘I know, I know,’ says the abused party. ‘But he does love me…’
What you know is that he needs you – needs you to put up with him and never leave him whatever he says or does.
As far as I can make out, there are two real meanings to ‘I love you.’ One is that in that particular moment of unity and bliss, a true feeling of deep recognition, of understanding and of being understood is experienced. It does not mean that the feeling will last for all eternity, for a month or even until morning. It is just a rush of genuine joy in a moment of togetherness.
The ‘I love you’ that leads to a lasting relationship or marriage means: judging by how I feel now and have felt for some time, I believe I will still feel the same tomorrow and in forty years. Or, at any rate, I will try to maintain this feeling of love for as long as possible and I’ll let you know if and when I fail.
The other key meaning is the really insidious one; I really need you to love me and look after me because I am fundamentally unhappy and only someone who has promised to stay with me is going to put up with my re-enacting all my misery and rage day in day our for as long as we both shall live.
I will please myself at all times but because I said I love you you will put up with it and I will feel safe even when I am threatening you. I can only take out my hatred on someone who can’t get away, so you must love me.
The thing is, you don’t need telling if someone loves you. If someone loves you they won’t have two other girlfriends and a wife, they won’t be cruel to you or make your daily life a misery by not sharing the work of a family. It will make you happy to have them around and they will obviously be happy to have you around.
They will be your best friend, the first person you turn to when something makes you laugh or cry, the person whose presence makes things feel basically okay. I don’t tell either of my wonderful sisters that I love them, because it’s absolutely clear from the way we behave with each other.
People only say it when something needs saying, and the reason something tends to need saying is that THERE IS SOMETHING MISSING, or there is a fear that something is missing, and that something is love. Unfortunately, the words don’t provide the substance, they are just words.
The phrase ‘I love you’ is meaningless or, rather, incredibly meaningful, but universally misunderstood.
Oh, and by the way…
Whoever you are, I love you.